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It All Started With a Cat

Valencia was dying and there was nothing I could do about it.  I mean, we were going through the chemo protocols, but it was not working.

I’d always thought of Valencia as a soulmate in the form of a cat. He had been with me through thick and thin, and our 10 years together had not been enough time. It seemed only moments, but it had been a decade since I had found this tiny, blue-eyed orange tabby kitten hiding between the tires of a parked truck on a busy San Francisco street. Surely it was fate that had brought us together.

When Valencia’s cancer struck is the moment my lifelong love of animals and passion for photography collided, but I wouldn’t realize it for a while. At the time, I just felt desperate. I was afraid I would forget him and the little things that were so uniquely him. How he curled up when he slept, the little dot that emerged on his nose as he aged, those eyes, his tail, ears … that face.

I had a gazillion snapshots but longed for something that captured what he meant to me. Over the next few months, my camera was always pointed in his direction. This was in 2001 in the days of film, long before digital cameras or smart phones. I burned through rolls and rolls of film. His health was rapidly declining while I documented every little bit of him. It became an exercise in seeing differently, zoning in on details, seeing shapes, shades, patterns, compositions. Perhaps this is why one of my favorite quotes, by Marcel Proust, is, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Not long after Valencia’s death, a friend’s dog had a similar diagnosis, so I offered to photograph him for her. At first, she was hesitant, but I reassured her that if nothing else, we would enjoy our time spent together. After the session, she loved the photos and one of them was even published in Dr. Nancy Kay’s book Speaking for Spot.

I soon realized that it was a gift to be able to capture photos that represent the essence and spirit of pets. Images that speak to those of us who believe our furry companions are family. This has become my mission. In the course of a session, which usually takes one to two hours, I shoot a variety of photos: posed, candid, portrait, and full body.  But what intrigues me most is getting intimate, connecting with my subject, and noticing the little details that make each one unique. These close-up, abstract images are more than pretty portraits; they become treasured, personal artwork decorating a client’s home.

The business of portrait photography is quite personal, and it is a special honor to be invited, and trusted, to photograph someone’s cherished pet. Each session is a joyful, unique journey based on the personalities involved, and it is common that I find myself smitten with the subject in front of my lens. I didn’t know it at the time, but the heartbreak of losing Valencia changed the course of my life.

Tonya Perme specializes in pet portrait photography and has been serving the San Francisco Bay Area for over 15 years. She is available for pet photography sessions around the greater Bay Area and beyond. Whether shooting in a studio, park, beach, or your home she likes to keep sessions relaxed and comfortable so a pet’s true personality shines through. Perme is a Bay Area native and you will often find her on the trails of the Oakland hills with one of her three dogs. View information about sessions and her photography portfolio at Find her on instagram, tpphoto_petportraits; or Facebook,

A cat named Valencia, in photo above, led Perme to animal photography.





Main article photo by: Photos by Tonya Perme